Reading speed is the number of words a person can read correctly per minute. Reading speed is also called reading rate. It’s part of a broader skill called reading fluency. This is the term for being able to read accurately at a good pace and with the right expression or intonation.
When kids can read fluently, it’s a pretty good sign that they understand what they’re reading. That’s why reading fluency is one of the measures schools use to track progress as children learn how to read.
To test reading fluency, kids are given paragraphs or a list of words to read out loud. Their score is how many words they can read in a minute. The score reports how accurate they are and how fast they are. Learn more about reading speed and fluency.
Why Reading Fluency Matters
Reading words at a good pace for their age is a pretty good sign that kids are sounding out words accurately (decoding) and getting to the point where they’re recognizing some words instantly. “Slow readers” may be struggling to sound out each word. Their reading speed may also make it harder for them to understand what they’re reading.
How does reading rate affect reading comprehension? Children need to “hold on to” the words they’re reading long enough to see how they work together to make meaning. The longer it takes to read each word, the harder it is to connect the words in a sentence, paragraph or story.
Is a “Good Reader” a Fast Reader?
Not necessarily. Being a good reader involves much more than hitting a certain words-per-minute target. Some kids are very thorough. Working carefully and at a slightly slower pace doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem.
“Being a good reader involves much more than hitting a certain words-per-minute target.”
Good readers read with expression. They read like they speak. For example, their voice will go up at the end of a sentence if it ends in a question mark. This skill of adding meaning through intonation is called prosody. Prosody and reading speed are both big parts of reading fluency.
Kids who read well also think about what they’re reading. They make connections to things they already know, and they think critically about the text to form their own opinions or ideas. If kids can do these things but work a little more slowly than their peers, then reading rate likely isn’t something to be concerned about.
But it can be a concern if kids have trouble understanding letter-sound relationships or blending sounds together to read. There are some common learning and thinking differences that can affect a child’s reading rate. Slow processing speed can also affect it. So if you think your child is struggling, don’t hesitate to talk to the teacher.
Questions to Ask Teachers About Reading Speed
If you have any concerns about reading rate or reading fluency, talk to your child’s teacher. Here are a few questions you can ask:
What’s the average reading speed for kids my child’s age or in my child’s grade level?
How much slower is my child reading than the expected rate?
Has my child’s reading rate changed over time? Has it increased some or stayed pretty much the same?
Do you have more concerns about my child’s reading, other than the reading rate?
What do you recommend to help my child improve?
You may want to watch a video on how schools provide extra instruction to struggling readers, too.
The teacher told me that my daughter isn’t reading fast enough. Why is this? And what can I do to help?
A child’s “reading rate” is one of the measures schools often use to track progress as kids learn how to read. Reading words at a good pace for their age is a pretty good sign that kids are able to sound out words without too much struggle.
When students can sound out words confidently, chances are they understand more of what they’re reading than “slow readers” who are struggling to sound out each word. These are some of the reasons why teachers look at how many words kids can read per minute.
Learning to read is a complicated process. To make sense of the symbols on a page or screen, kids need to understand and weave together several skills:
Identifying the sounds in spoken words: You may hear your child’s teacher talk about phonemic awareness and phonological awareness. These are skills kids can use with their eyes closed. For example, how easy or hard is it for your child to isolate the vowel sound in “dog”? Or to think of rhyming words, like “fog” and “log”?
Decoding or “sounding out” written words: Phonics instruction teaches kids the connection between word sounds and written letters. Learning common spelling rules can help readers decode or “sound out” printed words.
Recognizing some words by sight: Teachers often pay close attention to how many common words kids can recognize by sight rather than sounding them out. Some schools call sight words “star words” or “high-frequency words.”
Knowing what individual words mean: Vocabulary-building activities can help readers recognize more words by sight.
Understanding how words work together: Once kids can read individual words, then they can start connecting the words in a sentence, paragraph or story. Comprehension, or understanding how words work together to carry meaning, is the ultimate goal of reading.
Kids with a slow reading rate might need help with one or more of these skills. Reading rate can affect comprehension in particular. Children need to remember the words they are reading long enough to string them together in order to make meaning.
With that said, I worry as a reading specialist that sometimes schools place too much emphasis on reading rate. By frequently timing kids as they read, and labeling some of them as slow readers, we are sending the message that a good reader is a fast reader.
Being a good reader is much more than hitting a certain words-per-minute target. Some children are very methodical and thorough. Working carefully and at a slightly slower pace does not necessarily indicate a problem.
Good readers think about what they are reading. They make connections to things they already know, and they think critically about text to form their own opinions or ideas. If students can do these things but work a little more slowly than their peers, then I am not tremendously concerned about their rate.
But I do get concerned when kids are struggling to understand letter-sound relationships or to blend sounds together to read. There are some common learning differences that can affect a child’s reading rate. If you think your child may have a learning difference, don’t hesitate to talk to the teacher. Here are a few questions you might want to ask:
How much slower is your child reading than the expected rate?
Has your child’s reading rate changed over time? Has it increased some or stayed pretty much the same?
Does the teacher have more concerns about your child’s reading other the reading rate?
What does the teacher recommend to help your child improve?